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CHANGES IN FAMILY AND HOUSEHOLDS: SOCIAL STATUS
AND ROLE OF WOMEN AMONG THE KHASI TRIBE OF
The aim of this paper is to analyse the changes in the social status and role
of Khasi women with the advent of modernisation and globalisation.
Since all societies inevitably undergo social change, this paper will
attempt to enquire about the path and direction to which women in Khasi
Hills, Meghalaya is moving.
Keywords: Status, Role, Women, Khasi Matriliny, Gender
Anthropologists and Sociologists have long been interested in the study of women
in tribal society. Different views and opinions have been highlighted and express
with regards to the role and status of tribal women. There are scholars who are of
the opinion that primitive societies generally assign high status to women whereas
the other view point proposes that in the tribal world, women are generally
suppressed group, have low status and are under subjugation, oppression or under
male dominance (Lodha 2003: 3).
Status and Role are two sides of the same coin, in other words, these are two
concepts which are inseparable. Nevertheless, these are two different concepts.
Status is a collection of rights and duties; and can be expressed through the
medium of an individual. It is the position that one holds in society. Role, on the
other hand, represents the dynamic aspects of status. The individual occupy the
status which is assigned to him socially and he does so in/with relation to other
statuses. Further, the individual performs his/her role when duties and rights
associated with status are put into effect. In reality, there are no statuses without
roles or roles without statuses (Roy 2010: 6). According to Ralph Linton, status, as
distinct from the individual who may occupy it, is simply a collection of rights and
duties. He also made a distinction between the concept of „ascribed role‟ and
„achieved role‟. Linton highlights that ascribed roles are those which the individual
has absolutely no choice; while achieved roles are which the individual has some
sense of choice, regardless the magnitude of the choice (Sutherland, Woodward
and Maxwell 1961: 75).
Linton further elaborates that ascribed statuses are on the basis of sex, age, birth,
etc and roles are learned on the basis of statuses, either anticipated or current. He
maintains that role and status may be specialised or universal depending whether
they are shared by all the members of a given society or just a segment of the
aforesaid society. Statuses are basically linked with particular roles, and it may be
mentioned here that the two concepts are by no means one and the same from an
individual‟s view point.
Parsons (1949: 76) declares that the status of an individual in a stratified system of
a society may be regarded as a result of common valuations underlying the
attribution of status to him in each of these aspects, that is, membership in the
Kinship system, personal qualities, achievements, possessions, authority and
power. He further argues that both concepts (role and status) are the basic building
blocks of a given social system. A social system is a network of statuses and their
Young and Mack (1972:139-140) argues that a status is an abstraction, a
description of one‟s place in a social group relative to other positions in the group
whereas a role is the function of the status. Young and Mack asserts that when an
individual occupies a given position, the placement of that position above some
others and below still others will have consequences for his/her interaction in the
group. The consequences of occupying that status are called his/her role. They
have stated that like status, role is an abstraction; it remains the same even if the
expectations are being met by different individuals.
PROFILE OF MEGHALAYA
Meghalaya emerged as a full-fledged State within the Union of India on 21st
January 1972. „Meghalaya‟ meaning the „abode of clouds‟ reflects the serenity of
its climate. The State, with Shillong as its capital, has an area of 22429 square
kilometre and is located between 24°57‟ and 26°10‟ North latitudes and 89°46‟
and 92°53‟ East longitudes. It has predominantly hilly terrain with foothills as
plains and flood-prone areas.
According to the Census Report 2011, the total population of Meghalaya is
2964007 with 1492668 male population and 1471339 being females. The State of
Meghalaya is largely tribal. The ethnic composition of the State is 85% tribal and
the rest 15% comprise of the “Others”. As reported by the Census 2011, the
literacy rate of the State is 75.48%. The East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya,
which is the focal point of my paper, has a total population of 824059 with 410360
males and a higher population of females which is 413669. The literacy rate of
East Khasi Hills is 84.70% with male literacy of 85.26% and female literacy of
84.15%. The main tribes are the Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos; and other
smaller tribes such as Koch, Rabhas, Baite, the Bodos, etc. The non-tribal groups
comprise of Nepalese, Bengali, Assamese, North Indians and the South Indians
(Government of Meghalaya, 2011).
The Khasis and the Jaintias predominantly inhabiting the Districts towards eastern
part of Meghalaya, belong to the Proto Austroloid Mon-Khmer race. The Garos
belong to the Bodo family of the Tibeto-Burman race said to have migrated from
Tibet. The Garo, Khasi and Jaintia tribes follow the „matrilineal‟ system of kinship.
The Khasi tribe of Meghalaya is one of the few matrilineal groups in the world
whose social structure is more or less intact. A unique feature of the Khasi society
is the matrilineal principle of descent, succession and inheritance. The Khasis
follow the matrilineal form of family life in which the line of descent is through the
mother‟s lineage and the inheritance of the ancestral property is via the youngest
daughter (Ka Khadduh); but the succession to political office is from the maternal
uncle to the sister‟s son. Another remarkable of the Khasi society is the extreme
„clannishness‟1. In fact, it may be said that the entire society is the conglomeration
of clans known as “Kur” or “Jait”. Many of the clans trace their descent from an
old ancestress that is styled “Ka Iawbei Tynrai”2. It is noteworthy to mention that
the Khasis follow the matri-local form of residence where the groom usually
resides at the wife‟s residence. Though the Khasis follow the matrilineal form of
descent and inheritance, the maternal uncle (U Kni) is the head of the Khasi family
1 Society being known through clans.
2 Root Ancestress.
CURRENT DISCOURSE ON THE STATUS OF KHASI WOMEN IN
In Meghalaya the Khasi woman enjoys a certain amount of freedom in comparison
to women in other parts of the country. As mentioned earlier, the Khasi custom
prescribes the decentralization of ancestral property via female line. According to
Tiplut Nongbri (1997: 176), sons have no right to the ancestral property of the
family except in rare cases of there being no female issue in the family. There are
rules over the disposition of self-acquired property as well. In the case of women‟s
self-acquired property, the rule is simple. A woman during her lifetime may give
her self-acquired property to either her son or her daughter, but if she dies without
giving any indication about its disposal it goes to her youngest daughter. And if a
woman dies unmarried, her self-acquired property goes to her mother or sister.
Further, there is a feeling, especially among the educated Khasi, that their rules of
kinship and inheritance are biased in favour of women and are too restrictive. The
rule that women alone can inherit ancestral property is perceived as being
discriminatory towards men. The Succession Act is therefore seen as an attempt at
removing such restrictions and at correcting the perceived female bias in the Khasi
Women‟s position in the Khasi society is somewhat anticipated by studies of
matrilineal kinship systems. Several anthropologists have highlighted the inherent
contradictions in the Khasi matrilineal system. Audrey Richards (1950) refers to
these contradictions as „the matrilineal puzzle‟. The term may not be entirely
appropriate but it is indeed puzzling how matrilineal systems have survived despite
their inherent contradictions. One such contradiction arises from the disjunction
between the line of descent and inheritance, on the other hand, the structure of
authority and control on the other. The former which links the mother to the
daughter comes in conflict with the latter which links the mother‟s brother to
In the present scenario, though the inheritance of family property, both ancestral
and acquired, passes from the mother to the youngest daughter, a fraction of the
property is also given out to the other daughter elder daughters of that given
family. It is important to mention that the youngest daughter who inherits the lion‟s
share of the property is only but the custodian of the ancestral property and not the
owner of the same. The maternal uncle administers and has equal control over the
property while the sons are completely deprived of the said property.
According to Valentine Pakyntein (2000), the maternal uncle and the youngest
daughter act as the family priest and priestess respectively, in performing the
rituals pertaining to the family. Further, it is also the duty of the youngest daughter
to see that the death rites of her family members are carried out accordingly.
Besides religious duties, she is also socially responsible towards all members of
her family. It is a given duty that the youngest daughter houses and looks after her
elder un-married or differently-abled brothers and sisters, widowed or divorced
sisters and their children, widowed or divorced brothers and also orphans of her
deceased sisters, provided they are still young or unmarried. The house of the
youngest daughter is regarded as a refuge to all her family members.
The religious, economic and the social responsibility of the family fall on the
maternal uncle and the youngest daughter. It is the traditional political sphere that
women, in general, in the Khasi society cannot participate, neither do they have the
right to contest any form of office in the traditional council nor are they permitted
to exercise their franchise. The traditional council would consist of only male
members and the voting process to elect those members are also exercised by the
KHASI WOMEN IN DEWLIEH VILLAGE
The paper attempts to investigate the changes in the status and role of Khasi
women based on primary data collected from one Khasi village viz. Dewlieh. The
collection of data was spread over a period of three weeks in January 2015
focusing both on qualitative and quantitative aspects. Data was collected from the
village using the method of non-participant observation and interview with the help
of schedule and interview guide.
The Interview guide is chosen as a method of data collection because in a face-to-
face interview, I can interpret the question(s) asked if any of my respondents do
not understand the question(s). And with the aid of the interview guide, I can
identify cognitive body language, feelings, emotions etc; in the process it would
help me establish genuine views and responses from my respondents. Personal
Interview method is particularly useful as my respondents would have to share
personal information or stories.
Dewlieh is a small village comprising of only 20 households. The village falls
under Raid (cluster) Diengsaw, Sohra Syiemship, East Khasi Hills District
Meghalaya. It is situated at a distance of 46 kilometers from the capital city of
Shillong. Given the small size of the village, data was collected from all the 20
heads of household of the village. The primary aim of the study was to understand
the status and role of women in the village and the nature of changes or persistence
in the light of change introduced in the village both from within and without.
Keeping this in mind the study attempted to investigate the role of women in the
domain of the family, economy, political and religious institutions of the village.
Socio-economic profile of the village
Out of 20 households, Dewlieh village has a total number of 9 Katcha houses and
9 Semi pakka houses and 2 pakka houses. In Dewlieh Village, 95% of the total
population is engaged in agriculture activity. In Dewlieh all households were
identified to belong to the Scheduled Tribe category. The village was inhabited by
ten different clans viz. Dohling, Diengdoh, Khongsit, Sohkhlet, Khongnain,
Kharkongor, Shabong, Ranee, Wansai and Larngap. The total population of the
village is 106 individuals with 56 females and 50 males. The average size of the
family the village was 6 individuals per family. Out of the 20 households there are
6 households which have been identified to be of Below Poverty Line. The village
has a total number of 47 registered voters with 24 male voters and 23 female
Role of women in the family
Out of the total number of households in the village there were 4 female headed
households and 14 male headed households. For the purpose of the study head of
the household is taken to mean those individuals in the household who exercise the
authority to make decisions on all matters regarding both individual members as
well as the entire household in general. Out of the total number of households there
were only 4 households which were headed by women and the decision making
ability lay in their hands. An overwhelming 17 of the total number of households
was headed by the active male member of the family. It was interesting to note that
a diversion from the norm was evinced from the 2 remaining households where the
respondents claimed that the decision making was done jointly by both the male
and female heads of household. The figures illustrate clearly that in the village
under study at the level of the household decision making power belonged to the
men and women‟s participation in this matter was limited to only 4 households.
The structure of the family in the village demonstrated that authority within the
family was male-centered. The role of women in the village were confined to the
caring and nurturing of children, cooking food, washing clothes and other such
All the 20 households in the village followed the matrilineal form of descent where
the lineage was taken from the mother. All the households were uniform in their
answer to the question of the succession to the ancestral property by the youngest
daughter. There were 5 households which did not as yet have a daughter.
According to the Khasi customary law, in case the family had no daughters the
ancestral property goes to either the nest eldest sister or in case there are no sisters,
the nearest female kin of the clan automatically becomes the heir of the ancestral
property. Out of the five households there were three of them who said that in case
they had no female issues in the future they would consider distributing the
property among their sons. Interestingly this included both self acquired and
ancestral property. The remaining two households out of the 5 answered that they
would follow the traditional customary tradition of. In case the khadduh dies
without leaving any female issues they answered that the ancestral property would
be inherited by the next elder sister and after that the daughter of the elder sister. It
is important to mention that from among the 20 households, 70 percent followed
the matri-local form of residence. The rest 30 percent are those households where
the groom was married to daughters who were not the youngest (khadduh) and thus
household that were set up independently after marriage. This particular insight
only points out to the „matrilineal contradiction‟ where there are inherent
inconsistencies between the line of descent and inheritance on one hand and the
structure of authority and control on the other. The study also throws light on the
status of the “other” daughters in a given family whereby neither property are
given to them nor do they have any right over the property of their mother. The
respondents answered that in the case of the other daughters in the family the only
form of wealth that she would be given or was given is during the time of wedding
in the form of gifts from her family. No part of the ancestral property was given to
her. However the respondents claimed that they may inherit only from the self
acquired property which would be divulged to her during the time of marriage.
As opposed to the popular writings within the academic circles regarding the form
of residence as being universally matri-local in Khasi society there are slight
deviations from this especially in relation to marriage between other daughters and
others. The study points out that matri-locality is strictly followed only if a man
marries the youngest daughter of a given family. However, if a man marries
daughters other than the youngest, the form of residence would be either patri-local
or they would set up a nuclear household where the form of residence would be
The above data also points to the fact that there are minor changes in the opinion of
individuals with regard to the traditionally followed form of inheritance even in a
traditional village structure like that of Dewlieh. Despite this minor alteration of
opinion the majority of the respondents still vehemently prescribed to the
traditional customary practice of retaining the ancestral property with the youngest
daughter of the family.
Women’s participation in the economic life of the village
Agriculture was the primary occupation of the residents of the village as over 90
percent of the village was involved in agricultural pursuits for their daily
livelihood. Besides agriculture there were 6 households who were also engaged in
livestock rearing like piggery and poultry farming which formed the
supplementary mode of earning livelihood. This comprised their supplementary
occupation including working as daily labourer. Apart from this there are five
individuals who are employed in various capacities as government employees. In
Dewlieh village, the inhabitants practice shifting cultivation, called ka “Rep
Shyrtie”. Out of the total population 30% cultivate for self consumption, 65%
cultivate both for selling and self consumption as well and the rest 5% don‟t
cultivate at all. Out of 20 households, 13 household (65%) practice horticulture
farming. The average income of the products produced from the horticulture land
is Rs 2,500/year. Besides, the above crops, broomstick is the main cash crop. The
average income is Rs 1781.25 / year. Around 80% of the total population plants
this crop. All the above crops are organic in nature as the farmers don‟t apply any
The following are the major types of agricultural works done in the village in
relation to cultivation of various crops. Each of the major stage will be discussed
with the major divisions of labour between the two sexes:
Site Selection: This is usually done in the month of December to
January. Selection of site for Jhum practices was done by the individual
owners of the land according to the needs of the family and family size.
Selection of jhum site was done at the individual household level where
the decision regarding it was predominantly decided by the males of the
Jungle Cutting: This operation is usually done in the months of
December to January. In the cutting of the jungle the male members of
the household were the main source of labour for this activity.
Drying of debris: This operation follows just after the jungle is cleared
and the debris is left to dry in the open. In this activity both men and
women participated in equal measures.
Burning: Setting of fire to the dried debris is done mid Febraury to
March. This operation is done with care so as to avoid forest fires from
spreading across to other hills, which were not meant for jhumming.
This is usually done by the men of the village.
Sowing /Planting: Sowing and planting of various crops is done in an
intimate mixture by dibbling. Sowing was an activity that was done
primarily by women.
Women’s participation in the social institutions of the village
Women‟s participation in the social institutions of the village was also
investigated. In Dewlieh village there is one youth club, one Village Education
Committee (VEC), one Village Employment Committee (VEC) under Mahatma
Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, one Village Health Sanitation
Committee (VHSC), one Village Development Committee (VDC) and one Village
Health Food and Sanitation Committee (VHFSC). The above mentioned
institutions form the principal type found in the village. The youth club of the
village Nangkiewirat Cultural Sports Club is entirely male dominated. The
activities that it undertakes include community feasts and sports tournaments. All
the 15 members of the club are male youths and membership to female inhabitants
of the village is not open. The respondents when questioned on the lack of
inclusion of the female youths of the village answered that the women do not play
sports and they would laugh at the question that a female would even be inclined to
play sports like the boys of the village. The domain of the women-folk was
identified by the young boys to be in the domestic sphere and their reply was that
„women do not play sports‟. While the male youths of the village were at liberty to
pursue such forms of activity in their leisure time, the female youth of the same
age group were often found to be helping out the elderly women folk in the
domestic chores of the household such as cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and
gathering fuel for cooking.
Participation of women in other aspects of the village life which contributed in
some way to the socio-economic well being of the village was found in the self
help groups of the village. In Dewlieh there were two self help groups, viz.
Nangkiew Shaphrang and Ryntihlang. The former was established in the year 2007
and their nature of work involves broomstick cultivation. This group had 3 male
members and 4 female members. Ryntihlang was established in the year 2011, its
nature of work being poultry farming. The group has 5 males and 5 females as
members. The groups mentioned have equal number of female participators as
their male counterparts. The inclusion of women is related to the nature of the
work of the self help groups.
Under the schemes of the government there was one in which the work of women
was highly commendable and lauded by all members of the village. This was the
Village Health Sanitation Committee formed in the year 2009 which is an initiative
of the Public Health Centre, Laitryngew and an initiative which falls under the
Total Sanitation Campaign of the Government. This committee has been actively
involved in activities that can promote sanitation in the village. An amount of Rs
10,000/- is sanctioned under this campaign every year to this committee. The
committee at present has 11 female members and 3 male members. During the
time of fieldwork it was found that out of 20 households in the village, 14
households have toilets and the rest 6 households are yet to have and the work is in
Out of the government employees in the village there was one female employee
who acted as the headmaster of the upper primary school in the village. The other
four employees were male. The highest level of literacy of the government
employed respondents in the village was class 12 pass. There is one Lower
Primary School and one Upper Primary School in Dewlieh Village which at
present are serving the schooling requirements. The name of the Lower Primary
School is Government Lower Primary School, Dewlieh. The total number of
teachers in the lower primary school is 2. One of whom also serves as the
Headmaster of the School. The total number of students in Lower Primary School
is 27 with 6 males and 21 females. The total number of students in the Upper
Primary section is 8 with only 3 male student and 5 female students. There are
more females than males registered in the school.
The above data suggests that with the advent of modernisation, there is a certain
degree of women participation both in the economic and social domain of the
village. It is noteworthy to point out that with the introduction of modern
educational system in the village, the participation of female children seem to
outclass the male counterpart.
Women’s participation in the religious institutions of the village
Out of the total population in the village, there were 17 households who practiced
the Khasi Indigenous faith while there were 2 households of the Catholic
denomination and 1 household which belonged to the Presbyterian denomination.
Indigenous faith means the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, a powerful
creator, and a benign protector. They also believe in a host of the spirits, good and
bad, whom they propitiate or appease by appropriate offerings. Their ordinary day
to day life is believed to be influenced by actions of these spirits.
The role of women in the religious institutions of the village in all the different
faiths professed by the respondents was limited only as members of the
congregation. In the conduction of the rites and rituals of the religious ceremonies
men were the main leaders and all activities related to it were handled by the male
members of the village. The women of the village had no role in any aspect of
religious rites and rituals. However in the case of the death of a family member, the
youngest daughter usually presides over the last burial rites.
Women’s participation in the political institutions of the village
As long as the traditional political scenario of the village is concerned, Dewlieh
village is under the Sohra Syiemship. The village has a local „Dorbar‟ (village
council) headed by an elected „Rangbah Shnong‟ (village elder), accompanied by
elected executive members of the said village. The word „Rangbah‟, if translated to
English, would mean a male elder.
Women‟s role in the village council does not exist. Even in the present times they
have no right to either stand for office in the Dorbar Shnong nor are they allowed
to exercise their franchise within the institution of the dorbar. During the study, it
was also found out that women in the village are inactive in the decision making
process of the society mentioned. However it is vital to point out that the village
does have women‟s group (Seng Kynthei) but their role in the village is more
social in character than political. Their main functions and objectives are to look
after the affairs of the women folk in the village ranging from domestic violence to
sexual assault etc. Nevertheless, all assessment pertaining to the village
development or decision making are done so by the Dorbar Shnong.
Though women play no role in the traditional political institution of the State of
Meghalaya, their participation in the modern political institutions, like the District
Council elections, the State Legislative Assembly and the Lok Sabha elections, is
at its maximum. They not only exercise their franchise in large numbers, often
more than males, but they also do stand for elections in the aforesaid elections. The
recent trends of active female participation in politics can be highlighted from the
fact that the State has its first lady Home Minister to the Government of
Meghalaya. Asserting from the above observation, the women in Dewlieh village
too participate actively in the various State elections under the Sohra constituency,
East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya.
The present study in the village of Dewleih points out the fact that the role of
women and the corresponding status that they occupy in the social structure is
largely limited to the domestic sphere. Despite the fact that the respondents
followed the matrilineal form of descent their actual participation in decision –
making aspect in the level of the family and household was severely limited. It was
the male members of the households who were the prime decision makers.
However in relation to the inheritance of property the customary norms prevailed
strong pointing out the inherent contradictions in Khasi matriliny.
The nature of women‟s inclusion in the economic institutions of the village saw a
greater participation of women in certain spheres while in others, for instance in
the agricultural activities, the works were still governed by sex where women were
still confined to their traditional roles. A woman of the village occupied the post of
head mistress and had the highest education level. School registration also shows a
higher incidence of female versus male students. An all women‟s committee was
lauded as the successful group in the village involved in bringing about important
social and economic developments viz. the construction of village infrastructure. it
can be inferred from these developments in the village that with government
initiatives women have had added avenues to participate as contributors to the
socio-economic life of the society.
Religious and political participation of the women folk in the village were however
limited. Performance of religious rites and rituals were all in the hands of the men.
All the office bearers in the political institutions of the village were men. There
was practically n scope for women to participate in the traditional political
institution of the village. The notion that politics and matters related to it are not
the domain of women is ingrained in the mindset of the villagers. Even the women-
folk themselves generally speak of not wishing to interfere in the domain
traditionally occupied by men.
From the preceding observations it is clear that the women in the structure of the
village still occupy a position that is subordinate to the men.
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